There is a fundamental problem with music streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.
It’s not that streaming music often fails to properly value artists’ work — although there have been grumblings about the amounts paid out by Spotify to rights-holders for years.
And it’s not the overall cost of a lifetime of a streaming service, although Apple founder Steve Jobs hated streaming services for exactly this reason. In one of his famous keynote speeches, he once railed against the idea of “renting” music, arguing that you end up paying for your favourites songs thousands of times over.
It’s not even the limited selection of music on there, although even the best and most comprehensive streaming service is unable to acquire the rights to everything you might want to listen to.
Permanence is everything.
Let’s imagine for a second, that Spotify goes on living for another 30 years. That’s a pretty long time for any company to stick around — especially in an industry as volatile and prone to disruption as the intersection of music and technology.
Barring any unfortunate accidents, that would make me 53 when the company finally closes its doors in 2045. And then what happens? My entire music collection, painstakingly built over three decades of careful listening — gone forever.
Music is not like a film, or a book, that you consume perhaps half a dozen times at most. It makes up the backdrop to your life. Whether it’s the early teenage freedom that accompanied The Killers’ “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine,” or the “Indecision” by Sampha soundtracking a period of listless post-graduation melancholy — music is linked to almost every major moment of my existence. And just listening can take me back at any moment.
When you’re “renting” your music, the problem isn’t that you’re paying for your favourite music thousands of times over. It’s that you have no control over it. You could lose it at any time, through no fault of your own. In 20 years, CEO Tim Cook’s successor at Apple could decide the company needs to tighten its belt, and wipe out 100 million people’s libraries overnight. That uncertainty undermines music’s most powerful quality — that it’s a concrete link to the past.
Of course, the alternative — owning your music — has its own problems. It’s expensive, and takes up significant amounts of storage space. Music streaming also offers powerful convenience — so much so that I’ll admit that I will sometimes use Spotify when I’m out and about.
And, with owned music, there’s always the risk that you lose the hard drive your collection is stored on — and with it your years of careful work. Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal et al don’t have this problem (though the risks can be mitigated through careful backing up).
So, yes, ownership of music isn’t perfect. But ultimately, when I’m old and looking back upon my life, I’ll want my music collection more than ever. And the custodianship of that is not a responsibility I’m willing to grant Apple — or anyone else.
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